Facing environmental destruction and broken promises from the Canadian government, a local Pimicikamak community have evicted Manitoba's electric utility from the dam on Cross Lake. In a place where water is an integral part of social and cultural life, the community demands accountability for the harm that the utility has caused. In building relationships with his former neighbors, author Ali explores questions of land and power―and in remembering a lost connection to this place, finally finds a home he might belong to.
I cannot pretend to be objective about how much I loved the book. I was captured by its compelling themes of global desi homelessness and what it means to love places that are not our own ... This is not a book with easy answers ... he chooses not to quiz community members about their ongoing traumas, adopting the role of listener instead. The result is a warm, empathetic portrait ... Ali gives the reader a crash course on Canada’s history of problematic relations with its Indigenous communities. The book is not exhaustive on that subject, and does not intend to be. But for me, a non-Canadian, the brief contextual snippets were eye-opening ... The prose is far clearer, the issues more cleanly expressed, than a more technical book might achieve ... Ali does not hide his own face as an interviewer, nor try to deny his own stake in the narrative. Which felt to me like a deeply important step, given how the pretense of objectivity has been misused by colonialist authorities to tell precisely this kind of story. Ali describes in luminous detail the impression this remote area of Northern Canada left on him as a child, while also making it clear that, through his family, he feels complicit in the region’s troubles. Even so, he never slips entirely into memoir mode. Ali makes himself visible while shifting the reader’s focus to Cross Lake ... As I read, I kept wondering why it was so easy for Manitoba Hydro to break its promises to the community of Cross Lake. Why did the community have to keep litigating to get promised funds? Why were the kids committing suicide? ... A few times, I found myself scribbling frustrations in the margins ... But then, interrogating my own frustrations, I looked slantwise at the book, and realized that I was reading it wrong ... Northern Light forces the reader to keep thinking and engaging, throughout. That demand for engagement helps the book cut through the reader’s own baggage, based on every other story they have heard about an Indigenous community in trouble.
In search of belonging, a writer probes the past and present among the Pimicikamak in the Canadian North ... Spurred by these memories—so irrepressible in light of Ali's perpetual search for belonging — and by a sense of urgency, Ali returns to the region of his early childhood as a kind of quasi-journalist and an unwitting agent of hope ... Part personal narrative, part chronicle of history, Northern Light reads mostly as an in-real-time account of Ali's return to reacquaint himself with Cross Lake and its long-suffering yet gracious people. The effect is kinetic — the reading can be breezy ('the next morning is warm and sunny') and then downright slow, weighed down by the formal language of treaties, many of them broken ... Embedded in this overall effect, however, is the higher call to slow down and pay close attention to the injustices wrought upon the people of Cross Lake, including, as a result, its troubled youth. And to truly feel what it's like to be there, to reclaim a land that possesses you in return.
Kazim Ali’s eloquent memoir Northern Light reports on the complicated history of a Canadian landscape and its Pimicikamak residents, who endure human-made challenges every day ... This book began as a nostalgic inquiry into that place, but grew into an exploration of human connections to land and water, personal and cultural identities, and the meaning of home ... Lyrical motifs of stargazing, and of an origami crane that Ali carries as a talisman during his visit, enrich the book’s descriptive passages. Throughout Northern Light, Ali continues to reassess his understandings of his childhood memories and his reasons for returning to Jenpeg. The book’s open-ended questions, like 'What does it mean to be from?,' are resonant.